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It’s hard to see Hurricane Maria through all this smoke

Our forest fires are going to keep getting worse if we can’t reform the way we fight fires.

By Ken Fisher and Bruce Westerman, Opinion contributors

The following opinion piece, co-written by Congressman Bruce Westerman (AR-04), originally appeared in the September 20 issue of USA Today.

Earlier this month, standing on a hill overlooking the Columbia River that runs between Oregon and Washington state, the view was stunning as always. But not in the usual way. The swiftly flowing water was barely visible through the thick smoke of the Eagle Creek Fire then decimating 30,000 acres. Ash floated in the air like gray snow.

As Americans monitor television reports and text alerts on Hurricane Maria, there’s little attention for the fires across the West that have spread the heart-racing scent of fire across 10 states. Today it feels like that smell permeates our home region more than ever in our lifetimes. It’s getting much worse. Most shouldn’t have happened.

While headlines screamed of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma ravaging coastal states, more than 8 million Western acres have been torched, leaving behind billions of dollars in economic damage. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Our nature-loving culture makes these fires worse over time. The big ones  — nearly four dozen — are wind-driven, fast-moving and impossible to contain until wind subsides, then they burn themselves out. There is much we can do to transform catastrophic wildfire ecologies into non-catastrophic ones. It’s time to act.

Since weather patterns fueling wildfires and hurricanes typically occur in summer and early fall, hurricanes and fires often devastate simultaneously. While wildfire landscapes can be bigger, hurricanes get more attention by impacting heavily populated and media-heavy Eastern coastlines. Throw in life and private property losses that are exponentially worse — and it explains why hurricanes garner more news coverage. Hurricanes receive special federal disaster relief from wide-ranging state, local, individual and business assistance programs covered in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster policies. No such federal program exists to assist with catastrophic wildfire beyond the U.S. Forest Service’s budget.

Congress authorized about $120 billion in extra spending for Hurricane Katrina and $50 billion for Sandy. Harvey and Irma will likely be similar. The entire 2016 budget for the forest agency was $7.1 billion. More than half went to fight wildfires. In worse years, like now, the service must move more funds from other operating accounts to fight fire. It’s a practice called “fire borrowing.” Ironically, fire borrowing depletes accounts for forest management that could actually reduce catastrophic wildfire if scientifically based forest management practices were implemented. It creates a continuous downward spiral of more, larger fires causing ever worse forest management causing more, larger fires.

Managed better, we could reduce catastrophic fire risk, reducing fire borrowing costs, and grow healthier, fire resilient forests while generating private sector and forest service revenue. How? Modern forest management practices. Accordingly, future wildfires could be just natural phenomena instead of disasters.

Our forests aren’t really “natural” now. Original pioneers saw fewer, more widely spaced, larger and taller, older trees with thicker, more fire-retardant bark. Woodlands then had open “crowns” (space between treetops). As a result, they were less vulnerable to catastrophic fire. Natural fires were cooler, usually burning under their branching, rarely through their crowns, and didn’t destroy the trees.

But we’ve reshaped that landscape. Through the earlier methods of logging and the Smokey Bear approach to preventing fires, we’ve created closed canopies, tight crowns and land covered with small, tightly packed starved trees with continuous “fuel ladders.” That means fire now climbs from ground level, up bushes to low branches to crown tops. What starts as a cool, slow moving ground fire leaps into the crown where fast moving flames burn hot and fierce in the wind, decimating forests faster than anything can be done, firefighting budget or not.

We can change the rules, adopting management practices to both reduce fuel ladders and accelerate trees toward pre-pioneer qualities, what forest managers call “restoration silviculture.” The approach is well understood, and leading forestry scientists largely agree:

  • Thinning from below,” basically removing midsize trees in “overstocked” areas while leaving the bigger trees to grow faster (because the competition for sun and water from their slightly smaller brethren is reduced).
  • Forest floor management” — or cleaning up — which can provide badly needed jobs, perfect for those feeling left behind by our increasingly tech-driven economy.
  • Controlled burns on “understories” where feasible.

That more than half the Forest Service budget is going to firefighting is, by itself, evidence we aren’t managing forests well. Ask agency leaders. They know they could be doing better, but the rules are all wrong.

One of us has introduced legislation to get that started by removing impediments to better forest management. But Congress agrees on little. We need much more. America can’t afford Congress thinking baby steps. We need giant tree improvements.

Wildfire costs economically and environmentally. It’s fallen below our radar because of hurricanes dominating the news. How many more ever bigger fire years must we endure before we change federal forest policy and funding and embrace 21st century realities and forest management practices?  We can do this.

Ken Fisher, a USA TODAY Money columnist and founder of Fisher Investments, originally attended Humboldt State University to study forestry. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., is the only member of Congress with a career and graduate degree in forestry.

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